Tuesday, October 26, 2010

How to Be a Good Writer, Who Will Nevertheless Make No Money

1. Write tight.

I can think of only a few cases where we should prefer loose, billowy sentences over tight ones. Every time you write a sentence according to its first hearing in your mind, be wary: It will probably stand shortening.

Thus, the sentence I am writing right now, hoping to drive home the point that however concise you think your sentence is, you can make it more concise--this sentence I rewrite thus:

However short your sentence looks, shorten it.

In fact, I consider it one of the chief delights of the written word that from a skilled pen it achieves an eloquence far beyond that of the spoken. How many spoken phrases and colloquialisms are diluted by redundancy, vagueness, even contradiction. When you write a phrase you've heard, size it up for surgery. It will carry more punch if shortened. Brevity brings punch. Kapow! Brevity sticks in heads. "If the glove don't fit, you must acquit."

Which brings me to the second key and overstated and obvious point, which I will make anyway:

2. Avoid tired language.

Second City TV once performed a sketch called "Redundancy Theater," in which the characters spoke in nothing but redundancies. They said things like, "We'll hafta kill-shoot them Indian-savages with a rifle-gun." It was good education for the writer, who must take especial caution against the lazy bunchup of affectionate words. Word pairs get tired after a while, like people pairs.

Think of phrases like "free gift," "helluva time," "large and impersonal," "faceless bureaucrats," "elected officials." In writing, these hit harder as plain corporations, bureaucrats, officials. Better yet to find new words altogether. How about group-gropers, apparatchiks and catspaws?

And how many descriptive phrases have lost their shine through common use. "Land of dreams," "halcyon days," "wine-dark sea," "the rosy fingers of dawn." These verge upon the cliche, but do not quite thud. The eye passes over them without concern. They want spark.

You get spark when you squish together words that don't like each other: "Bitter youth," "beautiful blood," "wonderful disaster," "a fit of murderous courtesy." Incompatible words magnetize when brought near each other.

3. Write with active verbs. Using active verbs requires about twice the energy of using passives. Active verbs require the writer to imagine a whole new sphere of causality, and this taxes the brain. It requires imagining the world as a place where subjects act upon objects.

For example, try to put this sentence into the active voice: "There were trees on shore, and the rain was coming down in soft curtains."

You can't do it, can you? This is because description, particularly landscape description, might be the only place where passive verbs work. Thus I refute myself. Pay no attention to me from here on.

4. Avoid the trap, which almost everyone falls into, of saying what you mean. No greater disservice was ever done to the cause of reason than the progress of clear exposition. Mark Twain said, get your facts straight first, then distort them as you please. I do not take this to mean lie, especially in opinion writing, where one may safely speak of an obligation to deal justly with the facts.

I take it to mean, speak from a point of view. Strike a pose. Public debate is a loosely developed sequence of poses. At its best, it is a show of dispassionate postures. Don't know everything. Don't understand everything, lest you dull your rhetorical force.

I say dispassionate because an excess of passion kills writing. And here we come to another big don't:

A corollary: Opinion pieces work as straightforward exposition: Here's what's going on; here's why, and here's what we do about it. But do not discount the possibilities of the rambling essay, the satire, the parody. In other words, often you make a better point with your tongue in your cheek.

5. Don't care too deeply about those things you write about with deep care. Or at least, let your passion cool before you write, lest you betray more emotion than point of view. You don't want the focus to shift from the words you write to the anger of the writer, you see?

6. Don't care a whit whom you offend. We seem to have lost track of the idea that public debate is a kind of dance. I say one thing, you call me an idiot, I say you're a bigger idiot, we dance around. Thus we enact a great dialectic, and parties on both sides enrich the debate while enriching themselves; enrich themselves because they find themselves trying to answer argument with argument, and thereby expose new features and aspects of the question.

In other words, let debate thrive. Say what you like without fear, but extend to others their right to do likewise. I repeat. Do not be afraid to offend people. But decency requires that you do for the sake of greater public enlightenment, not for the sake of assassinating someone's character.

7. Last and most important: Schmooze the editor. Editors are people, despite some very strong indications to the contrary, and a great many of them are miserable little scrofulous dweebs who grunt and grumble and really only want love. So oblige them.

They can accept that you love them only for their approval power. But they appreciate your trying to disguise this fact. Let them know you intend to make their lives as easy as possible, and then do it. And meantime ask how their pet fish are. (Any other companion creature requires a level of care far beyond the capacity of the average editor.)

A major secret, known only to editors: The most effective way to get anything published is to drop in on the editor. Editors are usually so busy they can't address all the work awaiting them, but they must pay attention to someone standing before them, wearing a smile more than a foot wide. Convention prescribes that they be courteous.

Almost all the work I've gotten, I've gotten by means of the strategic drop in. So, try to perfect your stalking techniques. Practice entering, but not breaking, buildings. Slip beneath the radar, sneak into offices. If someone asks what you want, say you're there to see editor X, an old friend. Look confident. Dress well.

You will get published in no time. Then you'll want to do it again. Then you'll be in real trouble.